Monday, June 30, 2014

The Rat, the Thief and the Police

There was no way of knowing when I woke yesterday morning, sitting in the cockpit with coffee in hand, that somewhere around midnight I’d be in the front seat of a police cruiser, filling out a victim’s report.
No way of guessing at all that while we strolled the sunny, family-clad beaches of Daytona in the afternoon, stopping for frosty draft beers, that somewhere near our anchorage roamed an unstable, criminal, high on drugs, whose life would soon clash with ours.

While we watched from below as ‘junior captain’ and ‘Al of Alley Cat’ were projected into the air on a massive human sling shot, screaming as they were flung above buildings and back down again in stomach churning seconds, the meth addict, beads of sweat on his clammy brow, was desperately climbing along the docks from boat to boat, back at the Halifax Harbor Marina in search of something to help him secure his next hit. 
Suspecting nothing, we sat in Hog Heaven as darkness fell across Daytona, licking gooey barbecue sauce fingers after gobbling up the most melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs. Meanwhile a criminal had been reported, identified and chased from the marina to the next lot where he had stolen the wallet of a hobie cat sailor. Two police cars sped through the city streets, lights flashing, sirens blaring.

Across the city, we strolled again, the curio shops enticing us with brightly dressed mannequins all red, white and blue for the upcoming July 4th, their lights and cool air calling us in as we digested our delicious supper and headed toward the parking lot. My phone lay dormant in my bag, numerous unread messages on my facebook account from an officer of the Daytona Police Force, telling a tale we wouldn’t have believed had we read it…  
But we didn’t, as it were, and as we arrived back to Shiloh in the dark I was distracted by a four legged critter, a rodent actually, specifically a RAT - that had swum from shore and managed to pull himself up onto our sugar scoop (back step). No way of knowing he was not the first intruder of the night. He scurried back and forth, shocked by my high pitched scream and desperate to escape. Eventually he made the huge jumps up the steps and disappeared somewhere on board.
We all clambered aboard, a dinghy oar in hand, ready to whack-a-rat but immediately it became apparent something else was not right. Our key was missing from it’s hiding place. The engine kill switches were pulled out and the ignition keys which we never remove were hanging down. Then we started to notice other things, like the steering wheel which was set at 90 degrees – when we always leave it centered. And then there were the numerous muddy footprints around the cockpit.

The rat became the least of our worries as we then knew someone had been on board and had tampered with the engines. And since we hadn’t dragged, we knew it was not a helpful Samaritan… ‘Junior captain’ volunteered to climb inside through his cabin hatch (since we had no keys for the front door), and check if the intruder was still onboard. He swept the place and declared that we were alone.
Once inside we noticed the most mysterious thing of all. Our nav table, laden with ipads and computers, had been cleaned off and all the gadgets set aside – not stolen! Someone had rummaged through our papers and had left a few on top. But nothing was missing.
Scratching our heads we figured we should call someone and report this, since our keys were gone and the intruder would know where to come back! We called the coast guard who called the police.
An hour later it was well past midnight and we were on shore, surrounded by police cars and a jovial group of officers who began to explain what had happened in our absence.
The ‘suspect’ had apparently been cornered after stealing someone’s wallet and he had jumped into the mud brown waters, heading straight toward Shiloh.
Once aboard he seemed to find our keys pretty quickly – time to change that hiding place! He had started the engines and tried to take off with the boat. Only in his drugged out state and most likely exhaustion from the long swim, he failed to realise he would need to get the anchor up. But the windlass trip was off and the anchor was buried in thick black mud…
Meanwhile the shore police had called the boat police and soon Shiloh was hosting a bunch of guys with guns in uniform along with a violent criminal. Fun times! And we missed it all.
The police had tried to find some way of contacting us and had gone through the documents hoping to find a phone number. Instead they found our boat cards with my blog url and they’d gone to my facebook page. So by the time we met, they knew all about our journey and how unimpressed we’d been with Titusville and Cocoa!!
They asked us to press charges and explained that the suspect was a repeat offender who would be charged with the attempted theft of our vessel. I’m suspecting this will be a serious charge.
They assured us we didn’t have to ‘stick around’ to testify or anything in person but that we would be contacted by the district attorney. We filled out the victim’s statement report and were given a case number.
And then we chatted about the nice towns further north where one of the officers was about to take his annual holiday. We got his business card and said we hoped to meet him up there on the water somewhere. We pet his German trained dog and headed back, exhausted and a bit in shock, to Shiloh.
Out of all this, what we are left with is a sincere appreciation and respect for the intelligence and initiative of the law enforcement. From our arrival in the US where customs and immigration officials came down to a fuel dock to meet us and check us in, to the level of professionalism of the officers last night, I have to say we are pleasantly surprised and grateful.
It’s not every police force that would have tried finding us through facebook or a blog! Not many officers who would have returned to the scene on the hour until they found us arriving back – eager to hand us back our keys and assure us that though something awful had happened, they had it under control.
And somewhere this morning in a dim cell sits a suspect. Salt caked clothes and perhaps a few bruises from his last attempt to resist arrest, coming down hard from his last high for a while. He’s got a lot to think about. He’s being charged with trying to steal our boat. Our lives crossed paths in such a violent and tragic way and yet we will never know him or his story. An American story.
Meanwhile we can only hope the rat fell overboard. We head onward, winding our way up the narrow channel that is the ICW, flanked on both sides with homes and boats, trailer parks and stretches of marsh and bush. 

We look forward to more American stories, hopefully positive ones, and despite their efficiency, less dealings with the authorities.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Welcome to America

I’ve got a foam mustache so I fit right in, a Big Gulp sized draft cupped in two hands, while the ancient ferris wheel and the Tilt-a-whirl wheeze and groan behind us. Bright lights blink ‘Funnel Cakes’, ‘Candy Floss’, ‘Saltwater Taffy’, while the sirens, bleeps and rings of the arcade games serenade us. Just beyond the boardwalk where throngs of people wander and pose and stroll, the beach stretches on forever, lined with hotels, motels, Holiday Inns…

We are in Daytona Beach, the main beach strip and this is America on a Saturday night. T-shirts in the trinket shops exclaim, “Redneck Paradise – Daytona Beach” and they don’t lie.
Just a few blocks away, off the beach that brings the Atlantic ocean to America’s shores, and away from the flashing attractions, there are city blocks of gun and pawn shops, many of them offering both services together.I don't know where the beautiful teens of Daytona's Spring Break infamy are, but they are not here.
Daytona is our second stop in our new adventure of cruising the ‘ICW’ – Intercoastal Waterway that winds it’s way just inland on America’s east coast. We made landfall just a few days ago at Cape Canaveral, an industrial port, world famous for the rocket launches that help the USA’s image as the world’s most powerful country. A few miles north and south of the Launchpad however, lie the neighborhoods that give away the secrets of financial ruin and despair. Offices, gas stations, houses, abandoned, decaying... Apparently with cut backs in the space program, 12,000 jobs have been lost in recent years and it shows.
We anchored at Titusville on our first day and ventured inland to get ourselves ‘hooked up’ with a phone and a high speed Internet package. What we got was a full day of frustration with the many providers and their convoluted communication ‘plans’ and hours of riding the public buses. The bus trips provided the most entertainment. 
Our tour guide Mr James - out front of the far far away mall

Everyone is friendly. Beyond friendly. On our first bus we met Mr. James, a retired Vietnam Vet who offered to ‘show us around’. And just like that, without provocation we had a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer tour guide who dropped whatever it was he was doing for the whole day to show us the struggling communities of Titusville and Cocoa. The mall he suggested we visit, turned out to be nearly 30 miles and 4 bus transfers away. Past the local jail where the prisoners board the bus during their day passes, past the meth clinic where the meth amphetamine addicts board the bus coming to and from out-patient treatment. The ‘faces of meth’ are not pretty.
On one bus we met Tammy and her friend coming from the beach. They were not pretty either. Tammy explained to us, through smudged mascara, greasy auburn hair that fell over her eyes and her child-like freckles, that she was 20, she was five months pregnant and she was ‘high class homeless’. By that she meant that she lived in the woods just outside of town in a 3 room tent with a generator and a TV. Until last week. Recently she and her fiancée had rented an ‘efficiency’, a room in an old motel. Her friend piped in that it was just a hole in the wall. Tammy retorted that at least she had gotten an engagement ring, even if it was a $45 ring and necklace set from Walmart. They laughed. The friend, tall and blond and at least 50 lbs overweight looked Dutch or Swedish but to clear up any confusion she had a faded and very roughly home-etched tattoo on her chest that boasted “MADE IN USA”. JW asked them if they worked, and they laughed again. Tammy explained that she dropped out of school in grade 9. So, no jobs for a homeless pregnant drop out. Friend was also out of work and her excuse was that she had to babysit. Beside the two sat a little blond boy and girl, the friend’s nephew and niece. JW asked the boy how old he was and what he wanted to do when he finished school. He said he was four. He just wanted to finish school. Everyone laughed. Then JW asked Tammy if she was looking forward to having her baby. She looked down. “No! Being around these two (pokes her stubby finger toward the little ones) has made me dread it”.
At the transfer point, where we’d all piled off the bus into the stagnant Florida heat to wait for another, Tammy and her friends headed off toward their motel room/home, but she turned back to wave as she lit a brown cigarette and inhaled deeply. I sighed for her and the next generation. Our self appointed tour guide Mr. James shook his head and said he sees it all the time.  
On the next bus a woman in front of us twirled her greasy thinning curls and swayed gently as she sang Hallelujah, a defense mechanism perhaps, as the world around her threatens to implode. To her right a toothless man with an uneven afro shoved a hunk of chewing tobacco into his cheek. I sat pondering where he would then spit, only to discover what I did not actually want to know, as he spit neatly into some sort of pouch in his backpack.
The characters were too many to recall here. Not a one will be forgotten though. Like it or not, they are etched in my brain now for a very long time.
Daytona’s main strip only provided more and more. The Harley Davidson crowd took over the street party, toothless ladies in their 60’s in tight leather and denim, hubbies with ample beer bellies and skull imprinted head scarves. Bodies of all shapes and sizes stuffed into lycra, creating lumps and bumps and crevices that no one should see. T-shirts that exclaim ‘Eat Shit and Die Motherfucker’ greeted us as we strolled along. And street mobs doing the Electric Slide. You can’t make this stuff up. It was a people watching frenzy. It was bizarre and depressing, but fun and festive at the same time.

I have no idea what the rest of America’s east coast will offer. But at this stage, having been used to remote and deserted islands, blue waters and fishes as friends, this is all a bit of a sensory overload. I find solace in knowing we can still head 20 miles out to sea and pick up the Gulf Stream, no lycra, no meth clinics, just the fresh breezes of deep ocean waters.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A serenade to the beauty, the decay, the vastness and the diversity that is the Bahamas

A cacophony of birds serenades, and the warm sun pokes at my shoulder through the cabin hatch, waking me to yet another magnificent Bahamas scene.

Shiloh sits, eerily still in mirrored glass water, if there wasn’t a depth meter to say otherwise, I’d be convinced we’re on terra firma. We’re surrounded by pine trees and the smell of a campfire. I feel as though we’ve been transported to a Canadian lake, only if I dip just one toe in this luke warm water, I’ll know different.

This is Port Lucaya, an unplanned stop for us, and yet another one of Bahamas surprises. Highly developed with many marinas, duty free shops, cruise chips and their thousands of pasty pink skinned, camera happy passengers. It's a change, and like Nassau, a hub of human activity among a largely uninhabited set of semi-tropical isles.

The landscapes are changing, the birds are different. We have moved north. For us, this is the end of the Bahamas. Our last stop before hitting the gulf stream and Florida’s east coast. I can’t believe it really. Two months ago we arrived in sweltering Mayaguana at the southern most end of the Bahamas, to a desolate little settlement. Since then we have visited thousands of worlds within themselves. So many unique little gems with indescribably blue waters, turquoise reflecting on the clouds above. A few with tiny, friendly populations, but many, many with none. Places that feed your soul. 

It’s been a whirlwind tour of opposites. Of islands grouped together by colonial conquest. Places that are beautiful or troubled in their own right. Islands in the ocean, like us. 

From weeks of no shops, no internet, no other human contact in the Exumas, to huge supermarkets and bustling casinos. We’ve been screaming down adrenaline gushing water slides in the opulence of Atlantis resort. 

The Bahamas can’t be described. Many have tried. It’s beautiful, it’s amazing. Some of the islands belie secrets of an opulent past, where the rich made their playgrounds. In their place now, are decaying, crumbling buildings, nature quickly reclaiming their territory. Norman island, the former private fortress of infamous cocaine dealer Carlos Lehder is one of them. It really happened and wasn’t just a scene in Johnny Depp’s movie Blow. And we were there, crunching through the dead leaves that line the floors of the old rooms, imagining the parties and the killings. 

And there are so many ‘almost developments’ – places where visions and dreams were half built – marinas, hotels, huge mansions – all left for dead. Investment lost, lives changed forever. As a transient on the sea sailing past, we can only imagine the stories that surround each place.

And the next day, surrounded only by warm blue waters and sting rays and turtles and white sand beaches -you pinch yourself and wonder whether all the rest was an illusion.

This is the ‘off season’ better known as the hurricane season where the cautious leave this part of the world, holiday cottages, condos and boats all locked up and stored away for the dangerous season, while summer awaits back home in the US or Canada. It means we’ve had so much of these places to ourselves. The only boats in an anchorage, the only ones swimming in a blue hole, the only patrons at a rare bar/restaurant up the chain. It’s been our own paradise and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the hustle and bustle of tourist season at all.

Face to face with an 80 pound grumpy faced grouper in a natural aquarium,  swimming along with a graceful sting ray, sand combing with ancient dragon-esque iguanas, catching a flourescent, majestic dorado for supper setting up a ‘braai’ on our own island for the night, watching the flaming sun sink down into the ocean on another night in paradise…. These are the memories I’ll carry away from the Bahamas. A magical and largely unspoiled place. A place of dreams and a glimpse of times gone by. 

But it’s time now for even us stragglers to head out of the hurricane zone, leaving behind the grumpy groupers, the lobsters and parrot fish. The turquoise clouds to build up with weather fronts, for mother nature to rip through this chain of paradise for another season… 

We’ll sail out of Port Lucaya, with her blocks of closed up condos, and bid farewell for now to an enigma. The wonderful Bahamas. And off to a whole new adventure – America by sea!